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Amartya Sen’s Concept of Development and Poverty

Updated on February 14, 2017
The Central theme of Capability Theory
The Central theme of Capability Theory

Unique Features of Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach

Amartya Sen’s capability theory of development is simple and revolves around 2 things: People and their Capabilities. For Sen, development means expansion of people’s capabilities. Freedom is a vital element of the individual centric capability approach (CA) of development.

People who have grown seeing economic growth as development will undergo a paradigm shift in their thinking when they step into Sen’s capability Approach (CA). People obsessed to measure everything in money get disappointed with the CA when it reveals social, personal or say, psychological dimensions of development. And people who have always seen GDP growth as the yardstick of national progress and the prime goal of development feel depressed when Sen puts “people first.” People are both the means and the end of development.

“The purpose of development is to enrich human lives, not richness of economy which is only a part of it.”

Over the past decade Amartya Sen’s Capability theory has emerged as a serious alternative model of progress and development. It is both comprehensive and flexible. Rather than talking of philosophical equality of people, the capability approach explicitly recognizes the individual differences coming from things like age, sex, race, class, health, intelligence, education and so on. It also accepts that people’s abilities are influence by external factors – other people, social arrangements, access to infrastructure and public services, freedom to speak and participate, and so on.

Thus, the scope of the capability approach is quite vast. It considers all possible factors – personal, economic, social, political, or environmental – that can possibly influence human capabilities which dictate the real well-being of people.

Why I am not free from poverty
Why I am not free from poverty | Source

How Rich Countries may have Poor Quality of Life

Per capita GDP is the common way to compare countries. It is expected that economic growth should make people’s life better but the relationship between per capita GDP and quality of life is not straightforward. For example, Sri Lanka and the Indian state of Kerala have low per capita GDP but have higher life expectancies and literacy rates than richer countries like Brazil and South Africa. Likewise, the African Americans in the US have lower life expectancy than China or Kerala despite higher average income.

It implies that accumulating wealth doesn’t automatically translate into enhanced wellbeing of people. We can understand it in 2 ways.

First, wellbeing of people is influenced by several things – not all can be measured in wealth or income; for example social structure, culture and traditions, government policies and political freedoms. Second, the GDP income can remain concentrated in few hands due to nature of the economy and exclusionary forces. A recent Oxfam report underscores this point with global examples and highlights how the rich elites influence state policies in their fever which leaves ordinary citizens at disadvantage. The human development report of 1996 also pointed out:

“The imbalances in economic growth, if allowed to continue, will produce a world gargantuan in its excesses and grotesque in its human and economic inequalities.”

Core Concepts: Functionings and Capabilities

Sen argues that people’s well-being depends upon what they are actually capable to be and do with resources and facility available to them. Knowing what a person has doesn’t tell about how well his life is going. A simple example: Having a cycle doesn’t say that the owner has acquired the capability of mobility from it. He might simply doesn’t like to ride the cycle, or he might be handicapped, or doesn’t know how to ride it.

Functionings: Sen views life of a person to consist of “a sequence of things the person does, or states of being he achieves: together they constitute 'functionings'.” Thus, functionings are what people actually “do and are” – they are achievements of people. Taken together, these doings and beings – achieved functionings – give value to life.

Functionings can be both basic and complex achievements. Examples of functionings include being adequately nourished; having shelter; being literate; able to work, rest; enjoying good health, living long, being happy, having self-respect, and participating in social and political activities. They are closely related to another core concept: capability.

Achieving a functioning with available resources and facilities depends on a range of personal and social factors (e.g. age, gender, activity levels, health, access to medical services, nutritional knowledge and education, climatic conditions, and so on). A functioning therefore refers to the use a person makes of whatever is at his/her command.

Capability refers to the combinations of valuable functionings from which a person can choose. Thus, the notion of capability is essentially one of freedom – the range of options a person has in deciding what kind of a life to lead. They are like opportunities about what a person may like to do, have, or be. In other words, capabilities refer to genuine freedoms a person “enjoys to lead the kind of life he/she has reason to value”.

Difference between functionings and capabilities

Functionings refer to what people actually “do and are” and capabilities denote what people really “can do and can be”. The achieved functionings are the realized achievements and the capabilities are potentially possible. Functionings are, in a sense, more directly related to living conditions, since they are different aspects of actual living. Capabilities, in contrast, are potential with freedom: what real opportunities or options you have regarding the life you may lead. Therefore, the freedom to choose is inherent in the definition of capability.

The difference can be best illustrated with an example. Consider two persons, both without enough to eat. One is a victim of a famine in Africa and the other is sitting on a hunger strike in New Yrok to protest against US troops in Afghanistan. Although both lack the functioning of being well-fed, their freedoms to avoid hunger are vastly different. The former is badly constrained in freedom and lacks the capability to achieve the functioning to be well-fed; the later has this capability even though he is choosing to be hungry.

Sen Favors Freedom and Democracy

As mentioned above “freedom” is a vital part of the capability theory. Lack of freedom limits people capabilities in different ways. But this freedom is not what is given on paper by the national Constitution; it is also not limited to voting and elections. It is the ‘real’ freedom enjoyed by individual and improve their lives in the manner they want.

This is because democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes”.

Likewise “democracy is best seen as 'government by discussion” – namely, people's participation and public reasoning. Citing the history of global famines, Sen claims that “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy”. He cites India’s example, “The prevalence of famines, which had been a persistent feature of the long history of the British Indian Empire, ended abruptly with the establishment of a democracy after independence.” Another historical example he cites is the massive famine in China during 1958-61 during the failed 'Great Leap Forward', which claimed close to 30 million of lives. Loss of lives could have been avoided if people and the media in China had freedom to report the truth. For various self serving reasons local authorities did not convey the ground reality to top bosses.

Particularly in the context of poor nations, people often view freedom counterproductive to both political stability and development, and recommend restrictions and authoritative rule. However, Sen takes the opposing view and sees the rapid transformation of East Asian economies as resulting from the “social opportunities” provided by governments in the form of schooling, basic health care, basic land reform, and micro-credit. As a result of development, many economies such as Taiwan and Thailand became more democratic.

Amartya Sen sees political liberties essential for sustainable development and points to the breakdown of former Soviet Union. In the same vein, he compared the development strategies of India and China and argued that democratic India holds promise for a long term and sustainable growth.

Development means Expansion of People’s Freedom

"The success of a society is to be evaluated primarily by the freedoms that members of the society enjoy." – Amartya Sen

Freedom is the primary goal of development; freedom is also the principal means of development. It is “the enhancement of freedoms that allow people to lead lives that they have reason to live”. Thus, development is the process of expanding human freedom. It also means the removal of major sources of lack of freedoms such as poverty, all types of discrimination and inequalities, neglect of public facilities, lack of economic opportunities, social exclusion, state policies that limit freedom and so on.

He asserts that development is enhanced by democracy and the promotion of human rights – notably freedom of the press, speech, and assembly – because they foster clean, honest and accountable governance.

Development as Freedom!

In his book Development as Freedom, Sen prescribed five types of freedoms that “tend to contribute to the general capability of a person to live more freely.” They are interdependent and interconnected. Indeed these interconnections are central to a fuller understanding of the instrumental role of freedom.

Political Freedoms: They essentially include functioning democracy, freedom to scrutinize and criticize actions of authorities, freedom of expression and speech, and presence of free press.
Economic Facilities: such as People’s opportunity to have and use economic resources or entitlements.
Social opportunities: They include people’s ability to access health and education services, opportunities to participate in social processes and activities.
Guarantees of Transparent Governance: This concerns transparency in the functioning of authorities so that people can trust the information they receive and the system.
Protective Security: This pertains to social protections of the vulnerable people so that they don’t fall into abject deprivation.

Expanding these freedoms constitute not only the means, but also the end in development. The state must play its role in supporting freedoms by providing infrastructure and easy access to public services, social safety nets, good macroeconomic policies, and environmental protection.

Poverty means improper development.
Poverty means improper development.

Freedoms Supports Expansion of Capabilities

Freedom means having space to acquire capabilities and using them as one would want to. What people are “capable” of doing (achieving) is influenced by the freedom to avail economic opportunities and state programs and ability to enjoy political liberties and social powers.

It is necessary to evaluate the status of freedom enjoyed by the individuals so that effective developmental policies could be framed. In the context of anti-poverty programs, the individuals need to be seen as “agents of change” rather than “patients” diagnosed with the “illness of poverty”.

It means looking into their capabilities rather than just their income levels – more precisely, evaluating their deprivation in capability terms, not in economic terms. In other words, one needs to probe the potentials of the individual and the constraints in realizing them, as opposed to simply seeing their (often averaged out) income, consumption or expenditure. It will map out development in terms of freedoms (or their lack) enjoyed by individuals in the societies – it will be something like a Human Freedom Index.

The Power of Micro-Credit!!

“The poor themselves can create a poverty-free world... all we have to do is to free them from the chains that we have put around them.” – Muhammad Yunus, Bangladeshi Nobel laureate of 2006 and founder of the Grameen Bank to help women and poor through micro-credit

The Grameen Bank has helped 10 million Bangladeshis move above World Bank's $1.25-a-day threshold of extreme poverty.

People are “Agents” of Change

Sen sees people as “Agents” of Change, not passive recipients of benefits or mute followers of expert created policies. In Sen’s view, in the development process “people have to be seen … as being actively involved – given the opportunity – in shaping their own destiny, and not just as passive recipients of the fruits of cunning development programs.” So the central theme of development is to enable people to become agents of change in their own lives. When people, individually or in groups, are recognized as agents, they can define their priorities and also choose the suitable means to achieve them.

However, people differ in the ability to use the available freedom and choices and hence, in what they can achieve. In order to be good agents of change, people need the freedom to be educated and healthy, to speak in public without fear, to participate in the social and political processes, etc. On the positive side, once people have these freedoms they can themselves build the environment in which they can be educated, healthy and speak freely and participate, and so on.

A man has a lot of money but can’t work due to disabilities. What do you think?

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Accepting Human Diversity

A unique feature of the capability approach is that it recognizes individual differences. Sen accepts this as ‘realism’ and steers clear of the stereotype idealism, ‘all men are equal’. He takes it as a fundamental aspect of our interest in equality” and does not consider human diversity as a secondary complication (to be ignored, or to be introduced ‘later on’!).

The capability approach categorically recognizes that there will be variations among people in conversion of resources into functionings and capabilities. These variations in conversion arise either due to personal or socio-environmental factors. The diversity will also be seen in the variations in the income-using ability of individuals, and also in their income-earning ability.

An important consequence of acceptance of diversity among people is that they can’t be assessed uniquely in terms of resources they posses; they can only be judged in terms of what they are capable of ‘doing’ or ‘being’ with the available resources.

Indeed, if people were not diverse, then inequality in one aspect (say income) would more or less be identical with inequality in another aspect like capabilities.

I am Expanding my Capabilities !
I am Expanding my Capabilities ! | Source

Poverty is Deprivation of Basic Capabilities

Poverty must be seen as the deprivation of basic capabilities rather than merely the lowness of incomes. – Amartya Sen

Income alone can’t map the whole landscape of multidimensional poverty. For instance, in India over 50% of all malnourished children come from non poor families. When the Indian government claims that the poverty is down to 22% or 29% it tells nothing about the state of deprivations poor people are facing.

People’s wellbeing ultimately depends upon what they can or cannot do – their capabilities. For Sen “capability deprivation” is a better measure of poverty than lowness of income. Sen asserts that poverty should be seen "as a deprivation of basic capabilities, rather than inadequate income.

In Amartya Sen’s view, all individuals are endowed with a certain set of capabilities. If situation is created so that they can realize their capabilities they will automatically escape from poverty (ie, from their state of 'un-freedom'). If in today’s world of sheer abundance there are people living in poverty, they are living in a state of 'un-freedom', unable to realize their capabilities.

The capability approach has revolutionized the approach to development and poverty. It is taking the thinking into areas never considered relevant before. It recognizes the presence of poverty in the economically rich countries, again in terms of deprivation of capabilities. Inequality and social exclusion have emerged as two most common side effects of the current economic growth model. While it becomes only too obvious in the poor economies, it remains somewhat camouflaged in the opulence of the rich societies.

Measuring Capabilities Require Different Procedure

If expansion of human capabilities is going to be the prime goal of development, then progress need to be evaluated differently. In place of income metric evaluation procedure it now has to probe people’s capabilities. The existing poverty evaluations rely on income surveys which provide no guidance for policy interventions other than economic growth through top-down approach. To apply the capability approach, capability surveys need to be designed to assess capabilities and potentials, rather than incomes, in order to determine the constraints or un-freedoms that restrict capability expansion. The conditions leading to constraint are, by nature, subjective. Therefore, the input must come through a participatory process following a down-top approach, rather than from “expert” statistics.

A person has good income but spends it all on drugs. Is he a developed person?

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Challenges in applying the Capability approach

Compared with the income perspective of development translating the capability approach into practice is quite challenging due to the emphasis on value judgments with high informational requirement and its multidimensional nature. In the capability approach the units of evaluations are not opulence (utilities, goods and resources) but functionings (doings and beings). People attach varying importance to different functionings; some functionings can be essential and important, others can be trivial and valueless. But ultimately it is their freedom.

A person’s freedom to live the way one would like has intrinsic value – it constitutes a person’s being. It means not only the achieved functionings are valuable but also the individuals’ capability to choose and discriminate among different possible living. Emphasis on freedom to choose also brings out the point that not any choice counts; but only those that reflect an expansion of valuable choices. These will be different for different individuals.

In ‘Development as Freedom’, Sen argues that “People have to be seen in this perspective, as being actively involved in shaping their own destiny (given the opportunity). They are not mere passive recipients of the benefits of the development programs.” This aspect emphasizes the role of individual’s initiative and their effectiveness in social settings.

Now the question is: how to put the capability approach into practice if the capability is a possibility (exercised or not) and not an actuality?

Since the capabilities denote potential opportunities they are not directly observable. Thus, the assessment of capabilities has to proceed primarily on the basis of noting the actual functionings; it can be supplemented by other information. It should work because the valuation of actual functionings is one way of assessing how a person values his options. A practical way is to combine the information from income data with social functionings. This should easily work at the macro level and not much difference is expected between the capability approach and other approaches that also explore development in terms of non-income variables.

However, at the micro level the significant differences are expected where the capability approach (CA) allows people to express their ‘power of discrimination’ about what is good life for them.

Amartya Sen's Capabilities Approach


Influence of Amartya Sen’s Capability Theory

The Capability Approach has been highly influential in the context of international development. It led to a paradigm shift in the understanding of “development” away from the narrow confines of economic growth to a focus of “poverty as a denial of choices and opportunities for living a tolerable life.”

Despite the challenges, attempts to apply the CA have mushroomed in recent years. Among other things the CA has been used to investigate poverty, inequality, well-being, social justice, gender, social exclusion, health, disability, child poverty and identity. It has also been related to human needs, human rights and human security.

Numerous attempts have been made to apply the CA to the measurement of poverty and human well-being. While most applications focus on functioning, some studies have tried to capture capabilities in terms of freedom to choose or human talents and skills. Perhaps, the most well known measure is the human development index (HDI) of the UNDP, for which a significant contribution was made by Dr Mahbub ul Haq – noted Pakistani economist and Sen’s lifelong buddy who died in 1998.

The first Human Development Report of 1990 defined human development as “a process of enlarging people’s choices” and stated that “income is a means, not an end” of human development (p. 10). It was a major shift away from seeing development as mere economic growth and towards sustainable human development. It underscored that the economic growth is not an end in itself; it is only an important tool to achieve the end goal, which is human development. Development ought to be people-centric and both socially and environmentally sensitive. The annual UNDP reports also began a process of questioning the wisdom of 'trickle down' economics – the only way for the poor to benefit from the economic growth.

The former UN Chief, Kofi Annan has once remarked on Amartya Sen, “the world's poor and dispossessed could have no more articulate or insightful a champion.”

Critique of Sen’s Theory

Sen’s thesis is focused on individualism and localism. It almost entirely revolves around the individual – his abilities and choices. In short, it boils down to ‘what can I get from what I have, under the given conditions.’ His theory ultimately appears to come out in favour of capitalism running on principles of justice and good ethics. Yet he offers no strategy for creation of such good conduct. In reality, markets are not known to respect principles of justice or morality.

Impact of Global Powers and Processes

Amartya Sen’s theory is clearly a humane one and has won widespread acclaim, even by the mainstream economists. However, his thesis rests on Western individualism and avoids critical analysis of major western states and institutions.

The focus of mainstream development that we have today is on development of possessive individualism, where freedom means security of property and its tradability in the market. This has entered into Sen’s development concept also. Thus, his theory is silent on impact of global capitalism; it ignores the problems of unequal trade rules that favour the rich corporations and individuals.

The current philosophy is represented in the Washington Consensus, trade liberalization, and in agreements such as the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and Trade in Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). What goes on in the name of liberalization actually breaks down the communities. For those few people who manage to gain more education and skills find themselves constrained by the way the market limits where they can sell their labor, to whom, for what price, and in how it is used. Effectively, they are left with little freedom that Sen considers vital for ‘development’.

Meanwhile, the highly powerful “institution of speculators” and middlemen operate in a way that effectively decouples prices from the demand-supply equation of the market. As a result, it is nearly impossible for individuals to protect themselves from manipulations.

Now more and more observers of global capitalism are coming to the conclusion that we now need new rules of development where few rich people or MNCs don’t hijack the freedoms of ordinary people.

Is capitalism Exploitative?

Why capital can't remove poverty?
Why capital can't remove poverty? | Source


Amartya Sen’s capability approach to development has significantly influenced the international developmental discourse. His capability approach provides a unified view of development and poverty – the opposite side of each other. If development is expansion of people’s capabilities, poverty is seen as deprivation of basic capabilities. Sen puts development in the right perspective by considering it as a multidimensional process that can’t be adequately viewed from any one dimensional lens such economic growth. Then poverty also becomes a multidimensional phenomenon necessitating a multifaceted development approach.

Since capabilities go hand in hand with freedom, development can be also taken as expansion of people’s freedom which creates an enabling atmosphere for building capabilities. This offers guidance to the policymakers. They should ideally aim at creating an 'enabling' environment in which people's capabilities are enhanced and their range of choices expanded. It necessarily involves identifying factors that go against such enabling environments – this takes the development discourse to social, political and (now) environmental platforms (due to worsening climate change issues) to uncover what restricts people’s freedom.


This page aims to convey basic ideas of Amartya Sen's development theory for ordinary people. Much research has been done on capability theory. Students should consult relevant journals for better accuracy.


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